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Warren Lee Hill’s Future Uncertain Despite Stay of Execution

Though his life was spared last night when a court stepped in to grant a temporary stay of execution, Warren Lee Hill still faces the imminent possibility of lethal injection 30 days from now.

Just 30 minutes before Hill’s scheduled 7 p.m. execution on Tuesday, the federal 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a delay for at least 30 days. A Georgia appeals court also imposed a temporary stay to give it more time to study the single-drug lethal injection method.

Hill had his execution halted last July just 90 minutes before its scheduled time for the same reason, to allow study of the state’s change from a three-drug injection method to a single drug. When the court announced that it had resolved the injection issues on Feb. 4, Hill’s stay was lifted. Now that Hill has been granted another temporary stay, it’s unclear what hurdles the state of Georgia will need to clear this time.

Hill got some bad news last night when the U.S. Supreme Court denied Hill’s appeal to have his case considered by the nation’s highest court. The high court ruled a decade ago that the mentally retarded should not be executed because their mental state “places them at special risk of wrongful execution,” but Georgia is the only state that requires defendants to prove their mental retardation beyond a reasonable doubt — which experts contend is almost an impossible standard.

Hill was to be put to death for the brutal killing of Joseph Handspike, another inmate in the prison where Hill was serving a life sentence for the 1986 killing of his girlfriend, whom he shot 11 times.

All nine medical specialists who have examined him have determined that he is “mentally retarded,” the non-politically-correct term still used by the courts. Three doctors who previously ruled that Hill was “borderline intellectual functioning,” not mentally retarded, now all say their initial diagnosis was flawed because it was “extremely and unusually rushed” and “not conducive to an accurate assessment of Mr. Hill’s condition.” In addition, advances in the psychiatric understanding of intellectual disability now convince them that their initial finding was in error.

Hill’s case has attracted an outpouring of support and outrage, from The New York Times editorial page to former President Jimmy Carter.

Even the family of the victim does not wish to see Hill executed and has submitted an affidavit supporting commuting Hill’s death sentence to life without the possibility of parole, citing his mental condition. President Carter and Rosalyn Carter have called for a commutation of Hill’s death sentence to life without parole, as have numerous mental health and disability groups. Several jurors at Hill’s original trial have stated under oath that they believe that life without parole is the appropriate sentence. That option was not offered to them at trial in 1991. Last July, France, a United Nations official, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International called for a stay.

If Hill is executed, it would be the first completed death sentence in Georgia since the controversial execution of Troy Davis, who was killed in 2011 despite substantial evidence of his probable innocence.

“All the doctors who have examined Mr Hill are unanimous in their diagnosis of mental retardation, so there is no question that his execution would have been in violation of the US Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling in Atkins v Virginia,” Hill’s attorney, Brian Kammer, said in a statement after the stay. “The state of Georgia remains an extreme outlier in requiring that defendants prove they have mental retardation ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’. This is the strictest standard in any jurisdiction in the nation. Even Warren Hill, a man with an IQ of 70 who is diagnosed as mentally retarded by every doctor who has examined him, found it impossible to meet this standard of proof.”

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